Oct 23, 2015

Word of Life Church's Path From Bible Group to Lethal Sect

New York Times
October 22, 2015

Word of Life Christian Church
Word of Life Christian Church
Children sat facing the bare classroom walls inside Word of Life Christian Church, separated from one another by plywood dividers and forbidden to so much as swivel their heads to get a teacher’s attention.

Instead there were flags beside each homemade desk: an American flag for bathroom requests, and another with a red cross to ask for help with schoolwork. Some children’s arms hung in the air for 20 minutes before they were called on, a former student said, especially when Tiffanie Irwin was teaching. She was only a teenager, but she had the blessing of the church’s pastor, her father, who berated fidgety students from the pulpit and taught their parents to spank them so it stung.

“It was really sick,” the student, Nathan Ames, 26, said. “The way she spoke to you was very degrading. You were like a little pawn in her eyes.”

A week ago last Sunday, Ms. Irwin, 29, now the pastor, stood before part of her congregation in New Hartford, in central New York, and accused someone among them of practicing witchcraft, a witness told the police. Lucas Leonard, 19, said he was the one. The secretive group had dwindled in numbers since Ms. Irwin took over after her father’s death in 2012, and the authorities said she feared that Mr. Leonard would be the latest to defect.

Ms. Irwin summoned him into a counseling session, where the authorities said he was punched, kicked and whipped with an electrical cord for more than 12 hours until he died. His parents have been charged with manslaughter in the attack, which also left his brother Christopher Leonard, 17, seriously injured.

Ms. Irwin’s brother, Joseph Irwin, a deacon in the church, is among four other members charged with assault.

Ms. Irwin has not been charged, but a prosecutor said the investigation into her role was continuing. The police and prosecutors have dismissed the suggestions of witchcraft as a rumor “instigated by a member or members” of the church.

Mr. Leonard’s death has pulled a veil from a church that for two decades has hidden what former members describe as a culture of shame, abuse and paranoia, spread by leaders who exposed congregants’ supposed dalliances, split their families and coaxed them into long hours of physical labor.

But the mystery of how a living room Bible study group became a breeding ground for a gruesome killing continues to hang over the area, confounding even former congregants who spent years behind the building’s tall hedges. Rather than slowly dissolving, as so many unaffiliated churches of its kind do, Word of Life tightened its grip on the various facets of members’ lives, including their private phone calls and marriages, and made leaving feel like a step into the abyss.

“Unless you live through something like that, it’s hard for anyone to grasp,” Mr. Ames’s cousin, Elizabeth Ames, said. “So many people go, ‘Well, why didn’t you leave sooner?’ You don’t realize you’re breathing carbon dioxide until you breathe oxygen again.”

People of all stripes once showed up at the living room Bible study that became Word of Life, many of them disaffected members of other churches drawn by the group’s stripped-down style of worship. It was the late 1980s, and Ms. Irwin’s father, Jerry Irwin, was the founder and soft-spoken pastor.

“They wanted what the Bible says; they didn’t want all this other religious tradition,” said Janet Sylvester, who joined her two brothers in the group in the early 1990s after having a child as a single woman. “It was back to the basics.”

The group of about a dozen called itself City on the Hill. They dropped pamphlets on neighbors’ doorsteps. And when Mr. Irwin, a brooding man with a dark beard and broad shoulders, left to take over a church in Rochester, it developed a friendlier public face under new leadership. Ministers came from other congregations to speak, and a local rabbi visited. The church eventually bought a brick three-story schoolhouse to accommodate its swelling crowds.

The message was strict adherence to biblical teachings, with one early member writing to a local newspaper to denounce a growing acceptance of “homosexuality as a godly ‘alternate lifestyle.’ ” Members described it as a refuge from what they viewed as decaying secular norms.

But pastoral politics intruded on Word of Life. Mr. Ames said Mr. Irwin’s relationship with the church became strained when he heard from a loyalist that members were denigrating him in his absence. Mr. Irwin asked the new pastor, Richard Wright, to send him recordings of church services so he could monitor them, and grew angry when they never arrived, Mr. Ames recalled.

Ms. Sylvester said, “I almost wonder if he was jealous of Rick because once he left, Rick really got the church up higher.”

When Mr. Irwin returned to Word of Life in the mid-1990s, it was as a prophet who claimed to be able to see and hear inside people’s homes, former members said. One of his visions was to move his family into the sprawling third floor of the schoolhouse. Over time he drove Mr. Wright from power.

“The freedom that you felt was slowly going away, and the fear was slowly increasing,” Ms. Sylvester said. “And the fear wasn’t necessarily a fear of him; it was a fear because he represented God in your eyes. So your fear was toward God.”

Closing Off

Gates went up outside the schoolhouse, and other ministers were no longer welcome. Members began letting phone calls go to voice mail, feeling the need to get Mr. Irwin’s approval before taking a call. Parishioners were often barred from taking communion because he said they were in too much sin. One member said Mr. Irwin used racial slurs during sermons, though others did not recall that.

Members’ lives slowly became less their own, the former members said, as the building around them transformed into a sort of altar to the Irwin family’s whims. The third floor, where Mr. Irwin’s family took up residence in the late 1990s, became “pretty much a mansion,” Mr. Ames recalled. One room held a trampoline, and another a small basketball court. The bathroom had a whirlpool bath. It was so big the Irwins bicycled through the hallways.

The rest of the building had the institutional feel of the old schoolhouse, with colorless walls, cubby holes and water fountains. Its sanctuary was an old gymnasium that fit 200 people but rarely sat more than 30, with a three-step stage and a plain podium.

But upstairs there were also animals, dozens of them scattered through old classrooms. The Irwins bred birds, accumulating at least six doves, two huge golden macaws and several parakeets, Mr. Ames said. In the next room were the rabbits, and later on the Irwins began breeding Parti Yorkshire terriers, too, calling their operation Kajun Kennels.

It fell to young girls in the church to clean rabbit excrement from the cages. Older members were given the task of building and maintaining the living quarters.

One night Ms. Ames’s father was holding a utility light for other members during a roof repair. In the darkness he came too close to the edge and fell onto a grassy patch. Despite not knowing how badly he was hurt, church leaders put him on a board and drove him to the hospital themselves, later learning he had broken his arm.

“Jerry would say from the pulpit, ‘You can’t trust the police; you can’t trust firemen,’ ” Ms. Ames recalled.

Another member, Chadwick Handville, said Mr. Irwin asked them to redo his floors, plumbing, electrical wiring and gas lines into the night, the kind of request that began as voluntary and soon came to feel to members like an expression of God’s will. Some projects forced them to break building codes, Mr. Handville said.

“They sleep-deprive you because you become open to suggestions, usually what they’re teaching you,” Mr. Handville said. “They’re breaking you down so they can build you up the way they want to.”

Marriages and Rumors

Mr. Irwin arranged several marriages that he said he envisioned as God’s will, ex-members said, almost all of which ended in painful divorces. He was just as quick to invent rumors to turn husbands and wives against each other.

He often went after the men, accusing them of trying to sleep with his wife or hug his daughter too closely, in what members said seemed like a strategy to make their wives loyal to the church over their marriage. Mr. Ames said his brother was once asked by Mr. Irwin to spy on their father.

Women who stood up for themselves were ostracized, undermining their ability to defend their children as conditions worsened, Ms. Ames said. Her family left the church after her mother “was accused of wearing the pants in the family,” she said, and her father was made to choose between his wife and Mr. Irwin. Her father leaned on Scripture — a strategy another former member compared to “fighting fire with fire” — and decided he could not leave his wife over such a trifling threat.

Parishioners who defected were turned into cautionary tales. Mr. Irwin would play the phone messages they left announcing their departures for other congregants in his living quarters. Mr. Ames got word after his family left in 2001 that Mr. Irwin, speaking at a Sunday service, had accused him of French-kissing his cousin at age 3 or 4. He called the claim ridiculous.

Such intrusions into members’ personal lives are not uncommon in authoritarian church settings, said David Bromley, a professor of religious studies and sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, but they have grown increasingly difficult to sustain as the Internet furnishes new forums for sharing grievances and plotting escapes. Dr. Bromley said churches sometimes tried to cement their control by expelling people seen as unfaithful, offering prophecies that made members fearful or sowing anxiety about their spiritual standing.

Members said Mr. Irwin was charismatic enough, and his encroachment gradual enough, that they became helplessly entangled in church life by the time they woke up to his manipulations.

Looking back, members who came of age in the church, like Ms. Ames, said they were thankful for a childhood free from distractions, such as television or romantic crushes. But Mr. Ames said the discipline went too far, as when Mr. Irwin showed parents the plastic back-scratching rod he used to spank his own children, saying it was the best implement because it “stung the most,” Mr. Ames recalled.

Mr. Irwin told children stories of being raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, an experience they came to blame for his aggression. Ms. Sylvester said he had occasionally cried out during prayers about a previous wife who had left him and taken their children.

He also had untreated diabetes, which a former member who was close to him said exacerbated his temper. The ex-member, who did not want her name to be associated with the controversy, said he centralized power upon his return because of stories he had heard during his absence of “some really ridiculous, unacceptable things happening,” such as members’ cheating on their wives and stealing money.

A lawyer for Joseph Irwin did not respond to messages seeking comment about the Irwin family.

Ms. Irwin’s ascension in 2012, after a heart attack that suddenly killed her father, only intensified verbal attacks on members. Facing more petty accusations, several members defected in quick succession. “Her way of dealing with grief has always been to lash out,” said the former member, who left during that period.

The beating of the Leonards has left congregants to reckon with a multigenerational family drama now thrust onto a national stage, and a community to wonder how a three-story schoolhouse turned into a crime scene without their noticing.

An animal rescue worker was called to the Leonard family’s home this weekend, just south of the church, after neighbors complained of a putrid smell. Among piles of old pizza boxes she found four starving dogs, their coats smelling of mold and two lonely parakeets — the same kind the Irwins once raised and gave to members.

Susan C. Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on October 23, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Bible Study Group Devolved Into a Lethal Sect.


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